“An illusion,” said Va’lon calmly.
“What if I took a hammer and chisel, and…”
“That would be inadvisable. Oh, probably you would experience nothing worse than another illusion, to the effect that you were actually chipping stone. But possibly you would not survive at all. Allow me to offer you a closer look at reality.” Producing a small device, the Taelon initiated a small demonstration.
When it was over, Jonathan wiped his forehead. He had seen a version of himself with a crocodile’s head, and one of Amanda as a rubber snake. “I can see that we must get rid of it, yes. How soon can you get started?”
It seemed that preparations had evidently been going on for some time, for Va’lon had said earlier that more of his compatriots were arriving. But very soon there was evidence that some kind of massive effort was truly getting under way.
Doors thought the Companion shuttles bringing the equipment must have been waiting in near-readiness, not far away. They did not land anywhere on the hundred-plus acres of the former state monument, but at a distance of almost a mile.
Jonathan Doors decided that as soon as he had the opportunity, he would sit down with his wife and tell Amanda everything that Va’lon had told him.
Later, with the sun about to go down, he sat looking out from the window of his bedroom on the third floor of Casa Grande. He could see them clustered on ranch land, beside a small hill that would shield them against casual observation from the coastal highway.
Talking to Amanda at his side, Doors passed on what Va’lon had told him about the process. From the landing place, the necessary gear would be transported carefully up the slopes of the Enchanted Hill. Now, even as Jonathan watched, three sleek blue machines, self-propelled, the size of large pickup trucks, were being carefully guided up the slopes.
“Be nice if we had some binoculars handy,” Amanda wished.
“I’ll try to remember, next batch of aliens we get.”
Each Taelon machine had a long projection in front, like the neck and head of a brontosaurus. Each had one of the Companions walking beside it, or sometimes mounting on its back and sitting in a cab rather like one of the howdahs in which folk of the nineteenth century had ridden their tame elephants. And each machine, when necessary, eased its way somehow, with the care of a stalking cat, over fences and other obstacles.
Gradually Doors could discern the pattern in how the Taelons were disposing of their engines. He had not asked Va’lon for any such details, but he was curious. When this stage of their deployment was complete, they formed a rough triangle, surrounding the group of figures at a distance of between fifty and a hundred feet. The machines’ nozzles were all focused on the same central point.
* * *
« ^ »
As soon as Jonathan Doors had the opportunity, he sat down with his wife, in the small but luxurious sitting room that connected their two bedrooms, for a long talk about their situation. He had decided that if the Companions were really determined to eavesdrop on his conversations in the house, there was probably nothing he could do about it, given the technological disparity. He would have to rely on their not being interested enough to make the effort, particularly with the Urod keeping them as busy as they were.
The chairs and the little table were certainly antique, and probably worth a small fortune. Glancing through the open door of Mandy’s room at Cardinal Richelieu’s supposed bed, oxygen tanks standing beside it, he wondered idly how many houses of European wealth and/or nobility had contributed to the furnishing of this one small suite of rooms in the fantasies of an American newspaper publisher.
But at the moment neither of the human occupants were much interested in the problems of interior decoration.
“All right, Johnny, let me have it,” Amanda told her husband. “And it better be good.”
“Oh, it is.”
In a low voice, Doors tersely laid out the essentials of what Va’lon had told him about the Urod. The Companion had practically sworn him to silence, but surely the Taelons, who had studied him so intensely, would know that he shared almost everything with Amanda. They would expect him to do so now.
And, if they objected, to hell with them.
“Do you believe what Va’lon tells you?” Mandy asked when she had heard the story. She had connected herself to an oxygen bottle again, and at the moment a thin plastic nasal tube was feeding the bottled stuff of life into her ravaged lungs.
“In this case I do.” Earlier, one of the household workers had come upstairs unbidden with an armful of wood and kindling, and had considerately started a fire on the medieval hearth. Doors poked at the wood fire now; later, he thought, it would feel good against the damp coolness of the evening. “I have my reasons.”
His wife sounded consideringly neutral. “It sounds somewhat fantastic to me.”
“Mandy, did I ever tell you you have a gift for understatement? His claims are indeed fantastic. But then, so is everything about the Taelons. And yet here they are, as real as you and me.”
Amanda was briefly silent. Then she asked, “What does your father think of them?”
“Dad doesn’t like ’em much.” Certainly the time would come when Jonathan repeated Jubal’s story to his wife; but he was not ready to pass it on to anyone just yet.
There followed another small, uncomfortable silence, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Then Amanda asked, “Would it be very ungrateful of me to say that I don’t either?”
“You should say what you really feel.”
“Then I’ll say this: I get the feeling there’s something you haven’t told me, Johnny.”
He rubbed his face. “Only things I’m not totally sure about.” And things it might even be dangerous to say aloud.
After thinking about it for a moment, Jonathan rummaged about on shelves and in drawers until he found a scrap of paper. Pulling a pencil from his pocket, he wrote out that last unspoken phrase and handed it over to Amanda to read. When she looked up at him, wondering, with newly haunted eyes, he gently reclaimed the paper from her hand and threw it into the fire.
For some hours now Doors had been privately, silently pondering the possibility of quickly putting Amanda and his father on a plane and having them flown away. One problem that would first have to be solved was what to do with her rubber snake, the Taelon machine to which she was now attached, but Jubal’s story suggested that, despite Namor’s warnings, the device could be removed without doing Mandy serious harm.
Whether he sent his wife and father away from San Simeon or not, Doors himself would be staying on. He couldn’t cut out on his loyal workers. That would be a dirty trick, leaving them to confront as best they could a deadly Urod whose very existence they did not suspect, as well as a crew of Taelons who were probably just as dangerous.
Of course he might, alternatively, assign Amanda and Jubal a driver and a car and send them off by road in the direction of Maine, or of Alaska—provided he could persuade them to leave at all. By all reports the roads were now safe enough. The New Free Coastal Militia, as well as several similar groups of lunatics, had by now been forced to abandon their effort to block highways and disrupt society. News reports kept reassuring listeners that they had been arrested, dispersed, chased back up into the hills.
Amanda’s thoughts seemed to be running roughly in the same track. “When are we going home, Johnny?” she asked after a minute’s silence. “If there is danger from this Urod, as you say, but only the Taelons are capable of dealing with it—well, is there any reason for you, and me, and your father, to stay here and confront it?”
“I don’t want to leave the Ranch right now. Some of my people are going to have to stay here, and I’m staying with them. I want to be here while our friends from outer space are handling the Urod. In case it becomes necessary to—mobilize some kind of human help.”
Amanda considered, then asked, “Is that likely?”
“I don’t know. There’s an awful lot I don’t know, Mandy, about what’s going on.” He shook his head. “But my feeling is that the immediate danger from the Urod is not that great. Besides, I’m not sure we could travel far enough to avoid any problems that do develop.”
“Then I’ll stay as long as you do. What about your father?”
“I asked dad what he wants to do. He’s signed on for the duration too.”
She was studying him closely now. She reached out a feeble hand to hold one of his.